Three well-known members of the New Zealand wine industry have been inducted into the NZW Roll of Fellows.
David Lange was Prime Minister, The All Blacks prevailed in the inaugural World Cup and Peter Jackson released his first film. 1987 also marked the first commercial release of wine from Central Otago.
Thirty years on, there might be a temptation to mark this occasion by looking back in time, dredging up old stories and trawling through the history books, but that has been written about extensively in the past and as Alan Brady says; “What is 30 years compared with 2000 years in Burgundy?”
Alan Brady (Wild Irishman) was an integral member within a small band of plucky pioneers responsible for kick-starting the wine industry in Central Otago. He doesn’t mind sharing anecdotes from three decades of endeavour, but is actually more interested in focusing on what is happening now and where the region is headed. Similarly, he isn’t keen on being the sole focus for an article commemorating the 30th commercial vintage, so Rob Hay (Chard Farm) and Grant Taylor (Valli) have also been wrangled to provide some additional perspective.
For a journalist who was born and raised in Ireland with paid work in television and print, Alan Brady’s whimsical ‘have a go’ attitude is not unheard of in these parts. AJ Hackett would launch bungy jumping here just one year after that first commercial vintage, but what marked this region out for wine success is pretty much the same regional qualities that appealed to the original pioneers. For Rob Hay who arrived in the area in the mid-80s after making wine in Germany, there was a sense of unity amongst the fledging pioneers that was integral to what would happen next.
“Even way back to the mid-80s, where there were two or three other regions getting underway at the same time, people like Rolfe Mills (Rippon) actually stood up at one of our very first meetings when we were arguing about what our best sub-regions were and he said; ‘listen, we are all rowing the same boat, and that boat is Central Otago.’
Alan Brady describes the pioneering group as “real amateurs with no grape growing or wine knowledge”, but they all shared an impulse to plant grapes and get better at it.
That, and the pull and influence of the same unique geology that originally appealed to gold miners and farmers.
“One of the things about having a few years under our belts is that the vines have put their roots down deep, and so have those of us who live here. We know that vines reflect the piece of land they are in, but so do we.”
For Grant Taylor, marking the calendar to appreciate three decades of wine making in the region is more important than mere posterity.
“It’s good to stop and reflect on where you have come from and where you are going. We are guilty of not doing that enough, as we are so often living in the moment and enjoying it. We now realise that the area is a lot better than we ever thought it was going to be, it has surpassed any of our expectations.”
From initial experimental plots where a little bit of everything under the sun was planted to see what would work, one grape variety in particular stood head and shoulders above the others. In fact, when suggesting to Alan Brady that other varieties should get a look in with respect to the success of the region, he is a little dismissive.
“I know there are other varieties doing well and there is nothing wrong in that, but we are Pinot Noir. One of the important claims we can make with pride is the fact that we are 70 percent Pinot and that is what we do well, but not because of any clever decision making on our part. Pinot put its hand up and decided that it likes things here.”
“Yeah, if people are thinking Pinot, they quickly start thinking Central Otago,” says Rob Hay. “We are very fortunate that Pinot has packed its bags well and is feeling very at home.”
With many names synonymous in the heritage of Central Otago wine still active in the region, and some wine families now tapping into their 3rd generations, the future looks bright but what is it that attracts so many people to the region who never leave?
“Well, the way the community works together here is pretty special,” says Taylor.
“When I originally came along there were only four winemakers; myself, Rob, Mike Walter and Clotilde Chauvet. Back then there wasn’t a lot of fruit here, so during harvest we were often in each other’s cellars working together and that ethos is still here today. Outside winemakers that come to the region can’t get over how well we work together down here. It’s not something that I want to be true, it is true.”
All three talk at length about the camaraderie that exists in the region, but apart from the feel-good factor and the ability to borrow a forklift if you need one, there is something intrinsic to the close relationships formed here that shows through in the wine.
“Because our climate is so different, on-the-spot observation is so vital,” says Brady.
“A big contributor to the recognition that we have, is that winemakers and viticulturists have moved here and stayed, learning from season to season. Until we have been here for a while, we will never fully understand our sites and terroir.”
“Sure, you can buy grapes from here and make wine elsewhere, but you won’t understand it the way that we do,” says Hay. “There is a continuity of knowledge that we are now benefiting from, that and the fact that we have a large percentage of estate-owned vineyards that have history here.”
So, back to the future for the region. All three can see that a prominent factor emerging is the number of single vineyard wines being produced. Rather than simply focus on geographical indicators and working out the boundaries for sub regions, Brady reckons that the grapes should let us know where the dividing lines are.
“I hope that fact that the single vineyard expressions of wine that are coming via the top producers will take the pressure off getting the sub-regions identified.”
“Thirty years ago we simply thought about Central Otago as one region, but now we don’t think like that,” says Taylor.
“In the next 30 to 40 years we will start to talk in terms of different sites within the sub-regions, breaking it down into smaller parcels, much like it is done in Burgundy.”
All positives and reminiscing aside, it would be remiss to not touch on some of the immediate challenges facing producers in the region. Security of supply seems to be the most pressing concern, as both Hay and Taylor talk about the attractiveness of Central Otago grapes further north.
“Well, there seems to be a bit of a mad scramble from some of the bigger producers who like what they see down here and want some of our fruit. That can certainly pressure some of the people based down here,” says Hay.
“Though, in a year like this when the yield is light, who is going to miss out first? It won’t be the local wineries,” says Taylor.
“Generally, we sell fruit that we don’t need or have a market for, but in light vintages like this, that fruit will stay here first and foremost.
“So, in a way, I personally like to see slightly lighter vintages where the wine is a more limited resource and therefore gets paid more respect.”
Thirty years might be a minuscule amount of time when compared to Burgundy, but there can be no doubt that fast learning and good fortune have coalesced to put Central Otago on the map for more than just mountains and adventure pursuits. Though, Brady does roll his eyes when thinking about some early winemaking endeavours. There was the infamous ‘Dunlop Vintage’, so-called due to an overwhelming taste of rubber from the new tank seals, to some very naive viticulture.
“We didn’t even know about leaf plucking, the vines were growing like weeds and we thought ‘Wow, that’s great’, we’ve got a six-foot canopy, and then wondered why the wines didn’t taste very nice. Back when we started we were promoting the region overseas to people, most of whom didn’t know where New Zealand was, let alone Central Otago,” says Brady.
“But, I’m really excited now. I’m a futures person, that is what has driven me all my life. Rather than reminiscing about where we have come from, I’ve always looked ahead. We need to be thinking about what we are still to learn and understand about our land. It’s generational.”
“You like to think that you make your own luck, but we kind of lucked in when it came to the sites that we selected way back when,” says Hay.
“Who would have thought that one of the world’s most unforgiving but rewarding grapes would do so well here? I feel enormously privileged that I arrived here when I did and then got the chance to play a small part in such an exciting industry for this region.”
“Many years ago, Time magazine was down here and talked to a few of us, referring to this as a region in transition, and I think 30 years later it still is,” says Taylor. “It keeps evolving and changing and recently over the last three to four years we have gone through a phase where a number of smaller wineries have sold to existing wineries here, so there has been some really good consolidation. We have also been criticised for making fat fruit bombs, ripe fruit, high alcohol with no structure, but we are getting past that and this comes down to a greater understanding of our land, our climate and when to pick.”
“Wine makers being winemakers will always be experimenting and playing around with different varieties, but our focus for the future should be based around the classic varieties being grown in single vineyards.
“Grapes and wine are a gift of nature and the more we try to manipulate it, the less effective we are,” says Brady.
“Back in the day, we never appreciated how gentle you have to be with Pinot Noir. We used to have a funny old crusher and beat the bejesus out of the grape. Now, we certainly have a less is more approach. Success too hasn’t come through clever marketing, it’s simply quality wines made from grapes that are in an environment that they really like.”